Modals of Ability

This page will teach you how to use modals of ability.


When we talk about ability, we can describe general ability or specific ability.

– General ability is something that you learned once and still know how to do (ie: swimming, using a computer, etc.).

– Specific ability is when you have the ability to do or not do in a particular situation (ie: finish an assignment within a tight deadline, lift something heavy, etc.).

Present /Future

We use can / can’t for both general and specific ability in the present and future.

Affirmative Statements

We use the following structure with affirmative statements:

Subject

+

can

+

infinitive


She can play the guitar. (general ability)

I can speak Spanish. (general ability)

They can have lunch with us tomorrow. (specfic ability)


Negative Statements

We use the following structure with negative statements:

Subject

+

can’t / cannot

+

infinitive


My brother can’t swim. (general ability)

He can’t call you right now. (specific ability)


Questions

We use the following structure with questions:

Can

+

subject

+

infinitive

?


Can you play a musical instrument? (general ability)

Can you meet with her today? (specific ability)


* NOTE: We can also use can / can’t to talk about permission and prohibition.

My dad said that I can use his car.

Excuse me, you can’t smoke here.

Can Doug come out tonight?

Past

We use could / couldn’t for both general and specific ability in the past.

Affirmative Statements

We use the following structure with affirmative statements:

Subject

+

could

+

infinitive


He could use the computer at a very young age.

My friends could sail when he was eight years old.


Negative Statements

We use the following structure with negative statements:

Subject

+

couldn’t / could not

+

infinitive


He couldn’t do math very well at school.

His sister couldn’t ski at all.


* NOTE: We can also use couldn’t for specific ability in the past.

He couldn’t find the key.

I couldn’t get in touch with her.

We couldn’t meet with her because she was sick.


Questions

We use the following structure with questions:

Could

+

subject

+

infinitive

?


Could you ride a bike when you were four?

Could she draw when she was young?


* NOTE: It is also possible to describe past probability using could have and the past participle. This is often used with the Third Conditional.

They could have prevented the fire if they’d had better equipment.